Happier Holidays: How to Give and Receive the Perfect GiftThe Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
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- 7 Dec 2020
Exchanging holiday gifts is supposed to be joyful... but for many of us it is a source of stress, anxiety and hurt feelings. To transform the way you think about the act of giving and receiving presents, Dr Laurie Santos has gathered together the top experts in the field of happiness to share their tips, tricks and science-backed strategies. They even tackle the thorny issue of giving money in lieu of a present - with some surprising conclusions.
Joining Laurie for a festive Zoom party are Jamil Zaki from Stanford University, Liz Dunn from the University of British Columbia and Nick Epley from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
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Watch the film Gabrielle Chanel and cinema at Inside Chanel Dotcom. The 20/20 holiday season is going to be pretty strange for most of us because of covid-19, many families will be missing out on the fun times and companionship we usually associate with the most wonderful time of the year. But if you're a regular listener to the podcast, you know that we don't have to let bad circumstances affect our well-being. The science shows that there are lots of things we can do to adapt to the changes, 20 20 has thrown our way with the right strategies you can make this holiday season the best one yet, really.
But to get it right, we need to learn the latest scientific insights, and that's why I decided to invite some of the people I admire most in happiness science to chat with you for two special holiday episodes and to make it a bit more festive. We decided to throw our own little Zoome holiday party. Hello. Happy Holidays.
Happy holidays. And here was the guest list, Dr. Jamil Zacky from Stanford University. Jamal, are you there? Yes, I can hear you now, Dr. Lasdun from the University of British Columbia.
Yes. Try yelling at you guys. Turn it turn it up a little bit.
And Dr. Nick Epley from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I start listening to Christmas Music and Labor Day. So, yeah, that kind of guy.
I wore a dumb Santa hat for the occasion, cut you off. But Liz put us all to shame by showing up in some pretty serious party duds.
I have a shirt just like that and I would have totally worn it today. It's a holiday party, right? Yes, it is.
Nick, Liz and Jamal, are the scientists behind some of the best insights into how to stay happy this holiday season, stuff like gift giving, happiness tax and how to keep the peace around the family dinner table.
My hope is that whatever your holiday season looks like this year, you'll take away some science back tips to make your holidays happier and more stress free.
So God rest merry podcast fans get ready to rule your usual with the Happiness Lab Expert Guide to the holidays. With me, Dr. Laurie Santos and Fritz.
So one of the big things that stress people out about the holidays is gift giving, right? Like spending money on the gifts and like what kind of gift to get in, are people going to like it and all these things. And it strikes me that from a behavioral science perspective, one of the problems is that we get the theories of gift giving all wrong. And Nick, I take your work to basically, in a broad sense, be saying that like writ large, right?
I mean, look, there are two aspects of gift giving that create positive value. One is the act itself, as Liz has shown, and a bunch of her work. We feel better when we are doing good things for others. And you ought to embrace that at the same time that people who get gifts, like the gifts that we give them when they like the gifts, sometimes these two things are aligned as a gift giver. We can often think that it's the thought that we put into the gift and all the things that give us value out of gift giving that the recipient will also appreciate.
But the recipient can't see your thoughts, can't feel all of the time and effort and attention you put into it. They just see the gift. You got them this cute little computer mouse and if they like the computer mouse, they feel great. And if they don't, they're trying to rationalize how you could have given them this gift. So, yeah, I think people do misunderstand the nature of of gift giving. And I think it's a reliable, egocentric bias that produces it.
We assume that that other people value the thought we put into a gift. And mostly we as gift givers value the thought we put into a gift.
Let's dig into the first part first. Right. Like how do we get the most out of that good feeling of doing something nice for others? So, Liz, your work has shown that it's pretty easy if we pay attention to it, right?
Yeah. So I would say one of the big factors that can promote the joy of giving is getting to see the positive impact that you're having on the giver. So if you can't be with your recipient when they open their gift, like getting on Zoome with them. So we go to the effort to like, you know, get my dad and step mom on Zoome and like, chase my eight year old around the house so that they can see him opening their gift because that's that's really like this moment of pleasure for them.
And again, next work suggests that's where the giver gets there, gets their juice.
What about seeing someone enjoy their gift, not just the experience of them getting it, but actually them using it. I mean, I guess one thing that I keep on coming back to is this idea that oftentimes one really effective gift to give someone is just money so that they can use it on whatever they want. I know it's not romantic, but I think that when we try to invest all this time in using our gift giving as a demonstration of our mind reading capabilities, we often end up feeling I mean, you've shown over and over again that people can try to put mighty amounts of effort into trying to ascertain what will make someone else happy and not necessarily get it right.
So, I mean, sometimes when we give someone something like money, it gives them the autonomy to do whatever would make them happiest with it. And I imagine that that would in turn be intensified by being able to have them share with you what they liked about it, what they did with it, maybe even share an experience with you using the money that you give them. But again, I realize it's not maybe the crux of the holiday spirit.
Well, so there is a question. If we're if we're going to give somebody money, how can we do that better? Right. Because sometimes we either don't have time or we have no clue, especially in this current holiday season. People are busy. I feel like a gift card giving is going to go up because people can't get into shops. Right. How do we do that better?
So my dad, even though I've had like, you know, a normal adult, like, paying job for many years now, my dad still gives me money for Christmas, which thank you, Dad. Like, it's really nice. But the thing that I do being a happiness researcher is that I instead of just like sticking it in my bank account, which, you know, because I do have a real job, like it could just sort of get lost in there.
I try to, like, get it out in cash and like use it for something very specific and like, send him a photo of me enjoying it so that it can actually give him the kind of pleasure of giving, you know, a nonmonetary gift.
So that is if we give somebody money, we should, like, check up on them and say, like, hey, how did you spend it? So we can get the extra wellbeing boost on the side of, like, noticing how they spent it and that they spent it well and they enjoyed it. Thanks.
Yeah, I guess it could come off as a little obnoxious. If you're the giver, you're insisting on your, you know, me better on the recipient.
And so I think one thing that's important to unpack here is the psychology that's underlying these experiences. Right. So we can a little bit better understand why is it that gift givers, as Jamil said, feel better when you can see the recipients action and as Liz was pointing out as well, and the reason is, is that when you do something nice for somebody else, there are a couple of things that bring you pleasure from doing those prosocial actions. One is it draws you closer to the other person, so it satisfies some relational needs.
Emotions are nothing but signals that you have achieved a goal that you value. Right.
And so when you give somebody a gift and they say, hey, that was wonderful, I feel great about that, that draws you closer to them. I love you, that's great, you've come closer so that that satisfies that the other goal, that it satisfies his competency. That's the other thing we value a lot that Liz has pointed out in her work. So if I give Liz a gift and she feels bad about it, that's terrible. I feel terrible about that, which is why seeing somebody appreciate the gift feels so good.
Every year when I teach my my good life class about my MBA students, I have them do random acts of kindness in general. They love it. People feel great, but there's always like the one or two guys that just totally biomet. They give the sandwich to the homeless person and the homeless person throws it back and says, I've got ten of those sandwiches today. I don't need another sandwich. Right.
And they feel terrible because they weren't competent. They didn't do the thing they were trying to do. So some of the things that are being suggested here are ways that we can think about being good gift recipients, right. Being a good receiver, which we often don't think about. We think about being good givers, but we can also be good receivers. As Liz pointed out, if somebody gives you money, it's going to be hard to really feel great about that as a giver, I think, because you're not putting in a lot of thought for it, that's drawing you closer to the other person.
But as a receiver, we can make the giver feel great by showing that person how we actually use that money or showing the other person, you know, what we're doing when we're using a gift that they gave us, an experience that we're having with the thing. And so we've got a lot of power, I think, as receivers to make the holidays better to.
Another problem with our gift giving is that we seem to fall into the same biases about what we think we want that are wrong. Right. You know, there's so much evidence from all of your research that we kind of get stuff that we buy for ourselves. Incorrect. And that means when we try to give stuff to others, we mess up, too. So on the specific kinds of gifts you can give, like what might be promoting happiness better than other stuff?
Well, I would suggest some of the same lessons that we know for buying things for ourselves we can take into account for buying for others. So, for example, I think a great one around the holidays is to consider buying time. So, you know, is there someone that you know that's on your gift list that would really benefit from some extra time? And this can be a great one, too, because if you don't have a lot of money, you know, time is something you can potentially give.
So offering, you know, a single parent like a night of babysitting so that they can go out or here's an idea my friends and I came up with, which is to do like a dreaded task gift exchange, like we all have the thing that, like we just don't get around to doing and is like weighing on us, but it doesn't bother other people. So we pass along to the next person and you just take care of it for that.
You know, you like sign them up for that like program they've been meaning to do or like renew their New Yorker subscription or like whatever, like dumb thing it is. It's like sitting on your pile.
And I love that because it highlights that a gift cannot just be an addition to someone's life. It can also be a subtraction from their life, something that they might not want to do. I guess one of the thing that's come up for me a lot with gift giving this holiday season, but not most holiday seasons is trying to give a gift of experiencing something together, because I think unlike basically every other year of my life, at least, I'll be away from all of my relatives, like thousands of miles away from them.
And so, you know, I'm trying to think a lot from my parents, especially about how can I give them experiences of being with me and especially with my kids. Can we sort of try to watch a movie together or send my mom a book by a novelist that she likes? But it's not just in the book. I mean, say I'll read it with you, you know, and we'll we'll chat about it every week, in essence.
Right. I mean, to try to cultivate some cool experiences in a time that I think a lot of us will be hurting for them even more than than usual in twenty twenty.
And I love that suggestion, Jamil, because it impacts like it's like three different areas of psychology that we know work really well. Right. Like one is sharing experiences is just better than doing them by themselves. Right. You're giving like an extra hit just because you're sharing the experience. The second is like experiences at all are good. Right. We know the data. We've actually talked about this on the happiness lab already that experiences are just better than material possessions.
So the experience of reading a book is better than just like, I don't know, getting a like a mug or something or, you know, it's the sort of material object that looks nice, but you're never going to use it. Right. But then this year in particular, sharing experiences is the one thing we're all hurting for psychologically. Right. Like we're all just like starving this kind of social connection. And so forcing people to, like, get the shared experience, like the sharing is good and the experience is good.
And like right now we need that more than ever. So I love that suggestion.
The other thing that we might think about, too, is segregating some of these gifts across time. One of the most interesting things about happiness or well-being or mood to me is how insensitive it can be to scope particularly positive mood. When somebody does this little nice thing for you, they give you a compliment in the hall that can feel great, like you're up to to a nine on your ten point scale. And that's wonderful. You're like maxing it out for that little thing and.
Happiness responds to the frequency of positive events, not the intensity of them so often at holiday times. What we do is we give a lot of gifts that can be experienced like right to then at that time instead of spread out across time. So, you know, we can think about giving people gifts, you know, to to go and see a show or to go to a restaurant sometime off in the future, perhaps, especially now, we would do that often the future.
They could do this in the spring or in the summer. And that way they're sort of spreading out that whatever the holiday cheer is and to other points, they get to enjoy anticipating the event and then they experience it segregated from all of these other things and Will will get a bigger boost out of it.
I think as a result, I've done this with my dad, who's like he's really into experiences and he's really into food experiences. If you met my dad, you would understand why. But I often give him like, you know, like a chocolate tasting experience. But it's one of these things that happens on a particular day and that day feels really far away on Christmas. Right. You know, sometimes I feel bad of like, yeah, in March you're really going to enjoy this chocolate tasting, you know?
But then when March comes around and he calls me back and he's like, the chocolate was awesome. And he often wears a goofy CNN hat like I'm wearing when he goes because it was a Christmas present. Right. Like, you know, then then the holiday cheer kind of extends like, well, in time.
So. Yeah. And then he gets to be at a at a nine on a ten point scale two days instead of at a nine from two events on a single day. Yeah.
I mean anticipation is in general a way to extend happiness and well-being. But gosh, I mean right now I think many of us really need things to look forward to. Right. Because we feel like we're in this amorphous time blob where we are just passing by like they're in a flip book. And so I think that having giving people something to look forward to after they're able to go to a chocolate tasting, I mean, imagine that just being able to understand that that will be in the future somewhere, I think maybe even that just bring happiness, but also a sense of hope and optimism, hope and optimism.
That would certainly be a great holiday message to end on. But we're only getting started with the Happiness Lab Expert Guide to the holidays. After the break, we'll discuss an experiment that reveals the awful toll that buying the wrong gift can have on your relationships and will bring you some shocking news about the Cookie Monster shock and in my mind is reeling from this new information, the Happiness Lab Expert Guide to the holidays.
We'll be right back. So, Laurie, can I go back to one of the things we discussed at the very beginning, even though we covered a whole range of topics during our virtual party? Nick, listen, Jamil wanted to return to that central tradition presence, and I'm glad they did, because I know firsthand that it's a topic that can cause a lot of unhappiness at this time of year. In fact, you're about to hear the awful consequences of a gift gone badly and also some great advice on how to make the whole present process a source of real joy.
So one of the pleasures that people derive out of giving thoughtful gifts is because they have personally spent time thinking about the other to give this gift.
When I give my wife a Christmas gift, I experience that positively because of the time that I invested in thinking about her. Whether she likes it or not is going to be independent of the amount of thought I put into it. But that's one thing I think we might be able to do in creating this holiday season. It's going to give us a lot of time to think about, well, what would make my dad really happy?
To Nick's point, can I shadow the card? I think that, you know, we we undervalue the card that's on top of the gift. That's oftentimes the best part of it, because in writing it, you get to think about it and appreciate the person that you're giving it to. And B, even if the gift that's underneath it isn't perfectly calibrated with their preferences, that might be the most rewarding thing is to see what you think of them, what you appreciate about them, especially in these hard times.
You know, one really crappy thing about online gifts is that they have character limits to the notes that you can attach to them and they're draconian. It's like 100 characters. You can barely say hello in that much space. So, you know, maybe we should consider whatever we send to people, whatever we give, whatever we do, bringing back the card and turning it into a letter. You know, that's something that we can do with our time to think that we can use to focus on the people that we love, even if they're far away and something that can remind them how we feel about them.
Other people appreciate your thoughts when you reveal those thoughts to other people. One of the things that we're going to try this holiday season, which I'm kind of excited about, there's a bunch of interesting work about how we don't adapt quite as quickly to prosocial experiences as we do to process self selfish kind of experiences. So when you give to other people, you feel good. And when you do that over and over again, you continue to feel really quite good.
We find the same thing with compliments. We ran an experiment over the summer where we had couples create sort of a compliment calendar for the person they were with just for the next week. They wrote down one compliment for each day the following week. So I gave them five compliments and each day we gave the recipient one of those compliments. We asked observers to separate people, to read these compliments and predict how happy the recipient would feel each day. And they thought the recipient feel pretty great that first day.
That's really nice. And then the second day, a little less. A little less for a fifth day. Come on, let's knock this off. This is too much. You know, we have these theories about adaptation, but when we looked at the recipients, they were just at 11 like they were not at the top of the scale. But every day every compliment was new and positive and pleasant. And because it's separated by a day like they're fully able to adapt to the cobbler from yesterday and then experience experiences won a new.
So every year since going back to when I was a kid, we would have these advent calendars raised in the Christian tradition and our Advent calendars had candy in them. So every day, you know, there's and I don't have anything against Candy for sure, but we're going to do a different thing this year in my family, which is we're going to do complement calendar will probably do candy, too. And we're going to except for my four year old, we're going to write a series of compliments to each of the other things we're grateful about, things we like about this person.
And then we're going to take those and we're going to roll them up into a ring and stapled together. And then we'll just create a chain. You'll just open one up every day. We'll get something nice that that a family member thought about us that they might not have said otherwise. I think that could be fun.
I think that's a great strategy for highly functional families. I would worry that in more dysfunctional families, the compliments might be worrisome. So here's an exercise I experienced once. That's a version of that that is like more robust to problematic compliments, which is you walk around a room with, you know, and so maybe in covid you could do this in a park or something. And every time you look at some someone, you think something nice about them, you send them a compliment, but you don't say it out loud.
So, again, if you have a more extended family with some more fraught dynamics, I think that could be an interesting variation just to remove the actual content while I know the content is part of it, but just knowing that someone else is thinking something nice about you also feels surprisingly good.
You can also have like a someone edit, you know, like my spouse could go in and edit and take out the compliments. I don't. I want to see from my family members, right? So you just have a slightly shorter than usual I love mix like any other things that you all do in your own family are planning to do differently this year. Liz, you had one that I think I read some holiday article that you were quoted in about hiring somebody else to wrap gifts or something like that, like any other kind of timesaving tips that you use to pay people to do yucky stuff, especially during the holidays.
I mean, I definitely think that that can be a great gift because we know in some of our research we've seen that even though people really benefit in terms of their happiness from time saving purchases, they feel many people feel a lot of guilt about doing so. So, like, even if I have enough money that I could afford some kind of time saving service, for some reason, it just induces a lot of guilt to pay somebody else to do something that I'm capable of doing for myself.
And this is why the gifts come in handy, right? When you receive something as a gift, you don't feel guilty about spending the money on that thing. Right. So I think this is like a particularly good gift to give because it removes that guilt that otherwise might kind of get in the way of people either experiencing joy from that time saving service or even just being willing to to purchase it in in the first place. One other thing I would say is there's this classic economics paper you guys probably know called the dead weight loss of Christmas about how like we lose so much economic value on buying gifts because givers spend so much more money on the gifts than like recipients would value these gifts.
That and, you know, I think it's interesting because the way I think of it isn't so much just about, you know, how the giver experiences the gift or how the recipient experiences the gift, but also about the impact on the relationship. So the sort of space between the two people. Right. And, you know, the most sort of dramatic study I've ever done or like the study that I almost wonder if it was unethical, was back in graduate school, I ran a study where we had brought in romantic partners and we had people pick out a gift for their romantic partner.
Each person picks out a gift for for their partner. They're in separate rooms unbeknownst to them. We, of course, messed with their choices. And we give each person like the second lowest ranked item as the gift from their partner.
And like people freaked out, like I had to dive in between romantic partners, like brief them before they could get at each other. And it was amazing. You know, we saw these pretty dramatic effects where people were actually these were undergraduate couples who had been dating for a while. They were after getting a bad gift, men after the men got a bad gift from their girlfriends, they were less likely to report an interest in marrying this woman.
So, you know, it suggests it suggests the gifts can have or put differently. You know, getting a good gift can be can be good for the relationship. So, you know, and I think anthropologists who this for a long time, that gift giving is really important in building relationships. And so, you know, aside from just thinking in this very individualistic way about the givers experience or about the recipient experience, I think it's important to think about the impact that the gift can have on the relationship.
And in particular, my recommendation to to people, I guess, is always try to think about what you have in common. You know, it's just so hard to pick out gifts for people that if you have if there's something that you share in common with them, picking something along those lines I think can be helpful just because it makes you do a better job. There's not as much of an egocentric gap, basically, because you're similar to the person in that way.
And it's really what we saw in our study is that a bad gift can call into question the perception that we are similar. Right.
So, you know, I think it's actually worth, you know, spending a little extra time thinking about what gift you're going to give people and taking some of the extra time that we might have because of covid to choose carefully, not only because it might feel good to do so, but because I would argue gift giving really matters for our relationships, which, of course are critically important for our happiness. Can I suggest to follow ups to that? It's just it's very hard to know what's on the mind of another person.
It just shockingly art. I mean, I'm just consistently stunned when you bring people together, even married couples, and you have them predict the other person's beliefs, they're just wildly overconfident. They just think they know their spouses beliefs way better than they actually do. And so the only thing that we find allows you to understand what's on the mind of another person is to ask them and then to listen. That is totally unromantic. I understand. I get that.
However, my wife is really happy when I just get her the things she would really like. And it turns out if I've asked her beforehand, really doesn't matter.
She still likes it. Yeah. Yeah. Like at least I had the self-awareness to ask her what she wants and then to go out and get that thing. So, so that's one strategy. The other strategy is, is you can ask in subtler ways too. So. Hey Liz, have you done anything recently that that's been really fun. Tell me about it then. I know what you think. It's fun. Then I can go out and get you that thing so we can be.
So Jamil's point earlier about being more empathic. We can be better listeners. Around the holidays and start probing and doing more listening than guessing, the other thing I would suggest is, again, this goes back to the start of our conversation. We were talking about being good givers, but I think it's also important to be a good recipient. I don't doubt Liz's recipients in her study one bit. Getting the wrong gift can intuitively seem, you know, just horrifying.
You how could you possibly done that? I show when I give a talk off and I show a cartoon of Cookie Monster getting a gift from his wife and it's a box of crackers and he's just horrified.
I thought you knew me right. But that's where we can be good. Good recipients as well is to recognize Sahad problem and other people often try. And when they get it wrong, it's OK. It's a hard problem. We can practice forgiveness as recipients as well during the holidays.
Oh, I'm like it. Shock and awe that Cookie Monster has espoused. My mind is reeling from this from this new information. I want to see this this fellow character. But I mean, I think to your point, we can be better recipients in a couple of different ways. You're totally right. That perspective taking is so difficult. You know, we can put ourselves in someone else's shoes, but our feet are different than theirs. And so they might feel different in someone else's shoes that we might totally get them wrong even if we attempt to simulate what we'd feel like in their position.
And so I think what you're describing, Nick, is perspective getting right. So sort of doing the intel, doing the work to extract a perspective from somebody else. You know, I often think that we can also be good in the language of sort of empathy and empathic accuracy. There's an observer, the person guessing, and then there's the target, the person who's being guessed about. And we work so hard to be better observers. How can I be better at understanding you?
I think we don't think enough about how we can be better at being understood. Can we clarify our perspective more? Can we verbalize it more? So maybe, you know, one favor that we can do to our loved ones is drop some real clear hints about stuff that we like or might like. Right? I mean, because that way we we unburden them from having to seem like they like they don't know us by asking, but nonetheless give them the intel that they need to to make a good choice.
And another way to be a good recipient is to actually just like tell people how you feel about the gift, especially when that's positive. I think you don't want to tell people how you feel about the gift when that's negative, you know, but often in the holiday season, we can just be so into getting what we're going to get and getting everybody's presents that we don't do the pause to really express gratitude and like the strong way that we know would bump up well being.
My colleague Tim Harford, who runs the Cautionary Tales podcast here at Pushkin, has this wonderful thing that he does with his kids, where every time the kid opens a present, they have to stop and write a gratitude letter before they can open another present, but before they can, like, interact with and play with that first present. First of all, make sure that the thank you cards get done. But it also causes the kids to, like, reflect on what they like about that, you know, because now it's really silly.
It's like I want to play with this toy right now.
And I love that sort of suggestion because it's kind of just making sure that gratitude doesn't get lost in the mix. Those kids are very well-behaved.
They're British, they're British. They're OK. Yeah, trying to make my hero hard to imagine. I would also add, if you really don't know what your gift recipient would want, going back to some of the core happiness principles I think can be useful. So one of the things we know is that quality social relationships matter and that this is going to be a really challenging time to maintain them during covid. So after, like, heavy hints were dropped by me, my husband got me as a birthday gift just recently.
He turned our normal average duck into a covered, heated porch so that I could have friends over. Now it is like basically fancy saran wrap that is like enclosing it and just like beams of wood. He bought it at Home Depot. It is not fancy at all, but it means that I can actually safely have contact with, like a couple of friends at a time in the middle of winter when it's pouring rain and terrible here. And like that to me is a pretty, pretty amazing gift.
If you still have gifts to buy, I'm sure you've gotten a ton of great ideas from this conversation, but of course, the holidays are about more than just presents. So join us for the second episode of The Happiness Lab Expert Guide to the Holidays, where you'll get more science backed advice on how to boost your well-being at a time when many of our favorite holiday traditions seem to be on hold. The Happiness Lab is co-written and produced by Ryan Dile.
The show was mastered by Abimbola and our original seasonal holiday music was composed by Zachary Silver. Special thanks to the entire Pushkin crew, including McLibel, Kali Migliore, Heather Vaine, Sophie Krein McKibbon, Eric Sandler, Jacob Weisberg and my agent Ben Davis. The Happiness Lab is brought to you by Pushkin Industries and me, Dr. Larry Sanders.